It’s About Damn Time: Virtual Productivity in a Pandemic

“Space I can recover. Time, never.” -Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Working virtually has quickly gone from an option in the educational field to an absolute necessity under the Covid-19 global pandemic. Schools and universities are finding ways to reconnect people on platforms that help to keep the stream of collaboration and creativity flowing between educational professionals and the communities they serve. Colleges have sent students home to complete the semester online. Public schools have closed and principals are bringing their teams together for conference calls and virtual meetings. I’ve never been a fan of bringing my team together out of compliance. If a meeting wasn’t necessary, an email, pre-recorded virtual meeting or well-crafted document would suffice. High performing teams must have platforms to engage in productive collaboration that addresses challenges and allows the synergy of the collective genius of the organization to emerge in the midst of a crisis. Those in the trenches of this work of teaching virtually are not inclined to listen to long eloquent intellectual ramblings because time is of the essence. It’s about time. So in this new landscape, it’s important for those who lead to remember that honoring the time of your team is a wise and strategic leadership approach. Creating norms and structures around virtual teaming is critical to keep everyone engaged in the work.

Retreat for Strength

Each morning I retreat to my home office around 4am with a steaming cup of coffee and begin planning out the next several hours of priorities. In his book The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene writes, “Retreat in the face of a strong enemy is a sign not of weakness but of strength. By resisting the temptation to respond to an aggressor, you buy yourself valuable time – time to recover, to think, to gain perspective.” In this case, our enemy is an invisible virus that has forced us all to retreat into our homes. At times though, the enemy can be our own weaknesses in the area of time management and productivity. Do you and members of your team have clearly defined methods of monitoring and managing your productivity?

My Top 5

Last year, members of my team expressed how they were overwhelmed with emails about upcoming tasks and due dates. This led to me crafting a weekly list called “My Top 5 Priorities for the Week”. In one communication, they are able to quickly hone in on the top priorities for our school. It’s about time. It was a time-related adjustment that I had to make as a school leader to better serve my team and the outcome was increased overall productivity. What adjustments are you making now as a leader to better meet the needs of your staff and students? We’ve quickly established new formats for ongoing professional learning for our staff that align to these new challenges. What can teachers begin learning right now to help them be more effective over the next 2-3 weeks? What evidence will they produce to show that they are now prepared to apply their learning to the work of the school? Adjustments are happening at all levels. Paraprofessionals are making calls after students view online lessons and providing support to students who need it. The time they spend working with students via phone or Facetime helps those students continue to stay engaged in academic content away from the school setting.

What is the point of this meeting?

The conference call is scheduled for 1:00. It’s a busy Thursday afternoon in the midst of the second week of school closures. All 59 members of our teaching staff have been working remotely, frantically trying to keep our 600+ students engaged in meaningful tasks for the next several weeks. Like the rest of the nation’s teaching force, it’s a challenge that we were somewhat prepared for and have been executing well given the circumstances. We’ve pulled 15 members of our school leadership team together for this call, but the person facilitating the call doesn’t seem to have direction or well-laid plan for the agenda. After team members respond, there are long pauses of silence. We are all waiting for the next point to be raised. Finally, someone chimes in, “Excuse me, I may have missed it, but what is the point of this meeting.”. We all silently cheered that someone on the call had the nerve to say what we were all thinking. There was no meeting agenda shared prior to the meeting, and a clear purpose of the meeting had not been defined to honor the time of everyone on the call.

The 48-minute Mark

The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the late 1980’s as a time management strategy to improve your overall productivity and creativity. It breaks down periods of work into shorter segments separated by breaks. For years, I’ve been using a variation of the Pomodoro Technique called the 48-minute rule. It sets aside 48 minutes of uninterrupted work followed by 12 minutes of rest. Some have referred to it as the “Time Box Technique”. For the last two weeks, my staff has held virtual staff meetings. The goal is to have a well-organized conference call that leaves everyone well informed of our priorities and with clear directives about next steps. There are two prerequisites I have for these meetings. First, there must be an agenda that is distributed to the team prior to the meeting. Secondly, at the outset of the meeting I provide a projected end time for the meeting. “Good afternoon everyone, thanks for joining us. We should be able to wrap things up in about 30-40 minutes. Let’s get started.” Eliminating the uncertainty of purpose helps our team to remain focused on the agenda. If a meeting is reaching the 48 minute mark, members of my team know that I’m likely going to begin to wrap things up by saying, “We are approaching the 48-minute mark…” as a suggestion to determine if we need to push forward or whether we need to pause and reconvene at a later time once we’ve digested the information. I’m always open to continue as long as the discussion is purposeful and productive.

So now, droves of teachers and students around the country are at home, managing their own time. Far removed from the bells, class changes, and dismissal structures that provided structure to the normal school day. Leaders and teachers should make it a priority to share virtual schedules with families to help them structure the time away from the classroom. There are still due dates, high priority tasks and assignments to be completed daily, but the challenge now is creating a structure that leads to getting things done. Likewise, teachers are charged with being even more structured in designing their day with clear objectives and priorities listed on a daily schedule. Many members of my team are juggling the responsibilities of caring for their own children, helping them with their school work, and also teaching virtually. They are learning new platforms, updating websites, assessing student work and being attentive husbands and wives. In the familiar confines of our homes the temptation is much greater to get distracted by technology and other household tasks. The number one task of an educational leader in the crosshairs of the Covid-19 pandemic is to (1) be sensitive to the emotional stress of the pandemic culture and how it is affecting everyone, and to (2) effectively manage my time and to honor the time of those with whom I work and serve. Our communities need us. The beautiful irony of it all is that in the separation, we are given the opportunity to unite. In our retreat, we are given the opportunity to advance. There is no perfect planner or journal that will be the key to our productivity and success. It ultimately boils down to how we manage every minute and hour of the day. At the end of the day, it’s about time.

Soundtrack to this blog: Time’s A Wastin by Erykah Badu

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